Notre Dame senior Paul Joice opens his e-mail inbox and finds one new message. A young woman has requested to become his friend. But before that can happen, the message informs him, he has to confirm that they are, in fact, already friends.
Confused? You wouldn’t be if you were a college student and had heard of thefacebook.com, as most have.
Launched a year ago by students at Harvard, Facebook is an online directory that connects people through their social networks— mutual acquaintances, mutual interests, mutual backgrounds. It has become a staple of student life at more than 250 colleges and universities, including Notre Dame.
Users start by registering and entering information to create a profile of themselves. More than a million people have done so, according to the site. Some post only basic information like interests, academic major, their dorm name. Others choose to list more private details like phone numbers, addresses and their birth date. Security settings guard against identity theft by restricting access to certain information only to one’s “friends.”
One earns the friend designation by asking for and being acknowledged as such by the other user. Such was the case with the young woman who contacted Joice. He says he hadn’t spoken to her since freshman year but didn’t want to appear mean, so he clicked to confirm her.
Every detail you list in your profile can connect you with students with the same characteristics or interests. For instance, Joice lists Catcher in the Rye as a favorite book, so he can instantly connect to other Catcher fans.
Facebook users create new interest groups all the time. Two launched by Notre Dame students are the Anti-Popped Collar Club (for people who think the fashion statement of wearing one’s shirt collar upright is trendy and East Coast snooty) and the Brady Quinn Fan Club for admirers of Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.
Others use Facebook to network. Duke senior Monica Kohli says she “look[s] up people who I may not know but [whom] my friend is dating” or to find someone’s Instant Messenger screen name. Nearly all students today use the IM computer utility to chat or type short messages back and forth over the Internet, walkie-talkie style.
Notre Dame senior Claire Fadel says Facebook is a great way to find out what people she knew from high school are doing. “I’ve found at least 20 people from home and now some of us have started chatting.”
Fellow senior Pat McCarthy is among those who view Facebook as just another excuse to procrastinate about schoolwork, but he says it does help to “stalk people, which is a favorite pastime of college students.”
So far Facebook doesn’t appear to be ruining any students’ lives, but Susan Ohmer, assistant professor of film, television and theatre, worries that it’s another example of Internet interaction replacing conventional socializing.
“Are we at a tipping point where people spend more time on this than meeting face to face?” she asks. “I find it more concerning than intriguing if this is the case.”